Speaking in Tongues

Joan Derryberry Art Gallery, Tennessee Technological University, Cookeville, 2009

Materials: deer hides, shelled corn, gold mining pans gilded with gold leaf, cast deer tongues, charred timbers, muslin with text, deer skull, front leg of a deer with record player needle, phonograph with topographic map adhered to record, sound of a beating heart

“I have Indian Blood in me. I have just enough white blood for you to question my honesty.” Will Rogers, a.k.a the Cherokee Kid

On March 4, 1829, in his first inaugural address, President Andrew Jackson, feigning compassion for the Cherokee people, stated, “it will be my sincere and constant desire to observe toward the Indian tribes within our limits a just and liberal policy, and to give that humane and considerate attention to their rights and their wants which is consistent with the habits of our Government and the feelings of our people.” A year later the Cherokee would find their world turned up side down.

The First New Moon was a seven day Cherokee ceremony of renewal and rebirth. The last of the previous fall’s harvest was shared and consumed to remember the Creator’s continual blessing. The spring seed was sown, the sacred fire was re-lit, and all home fires were extinguished and then rekindled. The culminating ceremonial event included the sacrifice of a deer tongue within the sacred fire — as a symbol of re-creation. 

On May 28, two months after their 1830 First New Moon ceremony, President Jackson signed into law the Indian Removal Act, granting the Oklahoma territory in exchange for Indian lands within existing Georgian state borders.

Why did Andrew Jackson want the Southern Civilized Tribes removed? In 1829, gold was discovered in Northern Georgia on Cherokee homelands, becoming the first significant gold rush in those United States. The Georgia legislature, in collusion with the Federal Government (President Jackson was a land speculator and had his own assets in the area), began to plan the Cherokee removal almost immediately after the discovery. In an October 1829 letter of instruction, President Jackson encouraged the Indians to move beyond the Mississippi where they would have “land of their own, which they shall possess as grass grows or water runs … and I never speak with forked tongue.”

When Sequoyah created a written language for the Cherokee Nation, he realized he was inventing a form of symbols that he called talking leaves. He felt that white man’s words dried up and blew away like leaves when their words no longer suited them. During the fall and winter of 1838 and 1839, the Cherokee were forcibly moved west, out of the United States by the federal government. Approximately 4,000 Cherokee died on this forced march, which became known as the Nunna dual Tsuny — the Trail where they Cried.